The Saints got some encouraging signs from their dormant running game in Monday night's 34-14 blowout of the Atlanta Falcons, which they can only hope carries over to the final three regular-season games.
While they certainly have the kind of passing game that could carry them to a fast finish and possibly a playoff berth, the Saints (6-7) got some much-needed production from their third- and fourth-string running backs in thrashing the Falcons.
With Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush both out with knee injuries, they'd like to get more of what they got Monday night from veteran Aaron Stecker and rookie Pierre Thomas -- starting with Sunday's key game against the Arizona Cardinals (6-7) in the Superdome.
The Saints rank fourth in the NFL in passing yards with an average of 263.3 yards a game. But while that's the team's strong point, coach Sean Payton knows that teams do not win with the passing game alone.
Which is why their season-high 145-yard performance against the Falcons was so welcomed.
Stecker became the first Saints running back to rush for 100 yards since McAllister and Bush both did it last Christmas Eve against the New York Giants, getting 100 yards on 20 carries at Atlanta. Thomas added 31 yards on six tries and together they averaged more than five yards per attempt, while the team averaged a season-best 4.8 yards per run.
While Payton said the Saints ran the ball as well as they have all season, he shot down the theory that they're in some ways better without Bush as the featured back.
"I'd much rather have Reggie Bush healthy and involved in a game plan where he can be explosive. No different than Deuce McAllister," Payton said unequivocally. "Those are guys that are important parts of what we do. When you lose players like that, you have to get to your next plan and build a game plan that you feel gives you the best chance to win that weekend."
When Drew Brees threw for 250 yards in the first half against the Falcons, it opened up the running game -- and Stecker took advantage of it. Whether he gets as many opportunities in the coming weeks, however, will depend on how the Saints approach each game, Payton said.
"You try to sit down and look at who you're playing, how you feel is your best chance to move the ball and score, and then you begin to put your plan in place," he said. "I think you're constantly adjusting with your personnel, so whether a guy is healthy or not can dictate a little bit as to how you want to game plan."
How they do it right now is not a concern for Payton. All he wants to do is win the next three games and have a chance to earn a playoff berth.
"You want to build on (Monday's performance)," Payton said. "We've been able to put strings together in the past, but before you start talking about a string or series of wins, it starts with the second one. And this is the one that's most important for us now, for us and Arizona."
25th meeting. The Cardinals lead the series, 13-11, after winning two of the last three matchups. All three of those games were played in Sun Devil Stadium. The Saints, however, have claimed four of the last five meetings in the Superdome, taking a 27-10 win on Dec. 14, 1997 in the Cardinals' last visit to New Orleans.
--Saints running back Reggie Bush said Wednesday he hopes to return for the regular-season finale on Dec. 30 at Chicago or, at worst, the playoffs if New Orleans were to qualify for the postseason.
Bush, who had his torn knee ligament examined by Dr. James Andrews earlier this week, will miss his second straight game on Sunday when the Saints host the Arizona Cardinals.
Despite reports that he would miss the rest of the season, the Saints did not put Bush on injured reserve Wednesday.
"I plan on trying to come back as soon as possible," Bush said. "Obviously, you do not want to rush or risk anything. It's about the high-risk factor and risking further injury. I plan on coming back as soon as possible, hopefully by Chicago.
"I told (the Saints) that I don't want to be on IR," added Bush, who said the injury to his left knee affects his speed and his ability to cut. "I want to play. I want to be back as soon as possible and rehab."
Bush said he first hurt his knee against Jacksonville on Nov. 4. An MRI showed no tear, however, and he aggravated the injury at some point in the next four games. After the Tampa Bay game on Dec. 2, a second MRI revealed a torn posterior cruciate ligament.
--Saints coach Sean Payton and Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Joe Horn traded barbs over comments made in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last Sunday by the former Saints player.
Horn claimed Payton's ego and treatment of people were two reasons for the Saints going from the NFC title game in 2006 to a 5-7 record before the game with the Falcons, which the Saints won 34-14.
"To see what's happened and unfolded, man, when you get power in this league -- I own a business and I don't talk to people who work for me any kind of way," Horn said. "I don't treat them like dirt under my feet.
"Sooner or later, I don't care what profession you're in, when you get power and you know you have power and you act like you're 'The Man,' it'll come back and bite you in the (butt)," he said. "I'm talking about that genius that they hired in New Orleans."
Payton pointed out after the game that David Patten, who was signed to replace Horn, caught nine passes for 122 yards and a 25-yard TD on Monday night, while Horn had two receptions for eight yards.
"David Patten, he's the guy we ended up with," Payton said of Patten, who has 40 catches for 627 yards and two TDs. "His numbers tonight were pretty good. I don't know what Joe's final numbers were, but part of the deal is to move on. That was a big pickup for us, so that was a good trade to me."
--Kicker Olindo Mare, who hurt his right hip late in the Saints win over the Falcons, was put on injured reserve and replaced on the roster by veteran kicker Martin Gramatica.
Mare was injured with less than three minutes remaining while making a tackle on a kickoff return. He was in obvious pain in the locker room after the game and further tests indicated a subluxation of the hip.
"Based on the initial reports and all the test results, it's going to take some time to rehab," Payton said of Mare. "I don't think it's going to require surgery, but it will prevent him from kicking."
Mare had struggled in his first season with the Saints. He hit only 10 of 17 field-goal attempts and was especially inconsistent early in the year before pulling a groin muscle going into a Week 4 game with Carolina.
Payton would not say whether Gramatica or punter Steve Weatherford will assume Mare's kickoff duties for this week's game with Arizona.
--The Saints had a busy day Wednesday when they returned to work after the Monday night win over the Falcons.
They put reserve defensive lineman McKinley Boykin on IR with a knee injury and re-signed safety Jay Bellamy. It was the third time that Bellamy, who was released before Monday's game to open a roster spot for running back Jamaal Brach, has been re-signed after being released.
The Saints also signed former Ohio State defensive tackle Marcus Green to take Branch's spot on the practice squad.
BY THE NUMBERS
QUOTE TO NOTE
"I think he's a physical player. He's dependable, he has good hands and I think pretty good balance. He had some pretty tough runs and did a good job of hitting the hole." -- Saints coach Sean Payton, on RB Aaron Stecker's 100-yard rushing game against the Atlanta Falcons.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Saints are getting pretty thin at the tight end position and are likely to have only two healthy ones available for Sunday's game with the Arizona Cardinals.
Starter Eric Johnson injured his groin while making a 13-yard catch late in the second quarter on Monday night against the Atlanta Falcons and did not play in the second half. He did not practice Wednesday and could be out for the Cardinals.
If he can't go, that leaves the Saints with backup Billy Miller and reserve Ronnie Ghent. If they decide that Johnson can't play, the Saints might sign Buck Ortega off the practice squad, although reserve tackle Zach Strief has been used as an extra blocker in short-yardage situations.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--K Olindo Mare was placed on injured reserve Wednesday with a hip subluxation. Mare was injured when he made a tackle on a kickoff in the final three minutes of Monday night's game with the Atlanta Falcons.
--K Martin Gramatica was signed to take Mare's place on the 53-man roster and will handle the kicking duties Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.
--RB Reggie Bush did not practice on Wednesday and will miss his second straight game with a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
--TE Eric Johnson was held out of practice because of a groin injury, which forced him to miss the second half of Monday's game.
--DT Brian Young did not work on Wednesday because of a chest cold and is expected back Thursday or Friday.
--FS Josh Bullocks, who was inactive Monday night after straining a quadriceps during warmups, fully participated in practice Wednesday.
--S Jay Bellamy, who was released to open a roster spot for RB Jamaal Branch on Monday, was re-signed to the 53-man roster Wednesday.
--DT McKinley Boykin was placed on injured reserve with a left knee injury.
The Saints had their best all-around performance of the season in Monday night's win over the Atlanta Falcons. The offense was efficient with the run and pass and the defense was solid most of the night. A repeat of the offensive balance the Saints showed would be helpful this week because the Cardinals are vulnerable to the pass -- ranking 24th in allowing 226.7 yards a game. The Saints are fourth in passing at 263.3 yards a game, so getting a running game going will help open up the pass even more.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Saints LCB Mike McKenzie vs. Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald. The Saints must keep close tabs on all the Cardinals receivers, but most of all Fitzgerald. With his size and speed, he's certainly a threat to go deep on almost any play -- which has been a serious problem for the Saints cornerbacks this season.
Saints LDE Charles Grant vs. Cardinals RT Levi Brown. Grant has been rather quiet this season with only 1.5 sacks, but you can almost hear him licking his chops. Brown was the fifth pick of the draft last spring and has played well, but he struggled last Sunday against Seattle's Patrick Kerney and gave up three sacks and five quarterback hurries.
Saints WR Marques Colston vs. Cardinals LCB Rod Hood. Colston has been hot after a slow start, but he will go up against one of the Cardinals' top free-agent pickups last offseason. Hood, whom the Saints were interested in signing before he signed with Arizona, has four interceptions -- returning two for touchdowns -- so they know they'll face a challenge there.
TE Eric Johnson has a groin injury that could keep him out of Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals. TE Billy Miller would start if Johnson can't play against the Cardinals.